by CFSA Members, Lee and Larry Newlin of Peaceful River Farm in Southern Orange County, North Carolina
A Diagnosis Leads to Education
It was a personal concern for health that unexpectedly led us into sustainable farming. We are Larry and Lee Newlin of Peaceful River Farm, and we purchased an 18-acre tract on the Haw River in southern Orange County in 2010. But it was Lee’s 2005 diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that started us on this journey.
In January 2005, we met Lee’s oncologist for the first time at Greensboro’s regional cancer center. He didn’t bother to look up from his clipboard as he apologized for keeping us waiting. “What do you know about your prognosis?” he asked.
“We were told by the surgeon who performed the biopsy that the cancer is not aggressive,” we responded.
“Oh no,” he replied curtly, “it’s aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and we’re going to treat it aggressively.” When the shock wore off, Lee asked how she could have gotten cancer. The doctor matter-of-factly responded, “Blood cancers are on the increase, and research is showing a linkage to pesticide exposure. A minority of patients don’t have a recurrence; most do, and some do not respond to treatment and die.”
Needless to say, we soon left that doctor and found a wonderful healer, a nationally recognized researcher at the Duke Cancer Center, who has guided 13 years of Lee’s rebound from the bombardment of earlier chemotherapy while remaining cancer-free.
Lee studied a ream of books about cancer-prevention and nutrition, and was inspired to begin teaching healthy cooking classes from our home in Greensboro. It was overwhelming how few people knew about this connection in battling disease. As part of the educational experience, participants learned more about organic gardening practices from our small kitchen garden.
Journey into Sustainable Farming
We began a quest to learn more about organic gardening. We attended a Sunday afternoon organic gardening class hosted by Fred Broadwell, former Education Director of CFSA, and taught by former CFSA Executive Director, Tony Kleese. Fred pointed Larry toward Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro as one of the best sustainable ag programs in the country. That spring we attended our first Piedmont Farm Tour, followed that fall by Larry taking classes at Central Carolina Community College and attending our first Sustainable Ag Conference.
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We caught the organic farming bug and began thinking seriously about moving from our suburban Greensboro home to a small farm. The Triangle beckoned because of its appeal and because of our ancestral roots in the Snow Camp/Saxapahaw area.
We viewed a number of small farms for sale and happened one weekend on a former retreat center. It was more house and more land than we were looking for, but its location on the Haw River and its natural beauty spoke to us. We could envision Lee’s healthy cooking classes taking place in the building adjacent to the house. It also had the appeal of having five applications of alternative energy.
Yet, the house and soon-to-become Education Barn needed much work. Before we sold our Greensboro house, Lee spent the year overseeing remodeling work, and Larry began landscaping around the house, deer fencing, and cover cropping. We installed irrigation and cleared the streams of invasive undergrowth. We renovated the deck on the back of the house where we now host farm dinners, and below that installed a 1,200 square foot demonstration garden to show visitors what an intensively managed vegetable garden might look like in their own yard (potential savings of $4,000 in annual grocery bills). We added a quarter acre market garden each season.
Soil health is at the forefront of our farming activities today. We add compost and incorporate cover crops to improve moisture and nutrient retention, improve drainage, and stimulate microbial activity. The Haw had once been declared “dead Nature” from textile pollution, agricultural runoff, and suburbanization. By following National Organic Practices we help ensure the continuing rebound of the Haw’s health. We are surrounded by small towns and villages (Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, and Hillsborough) who are robust today in part because of their support of small farms and their care of their respective rivers.
Our crop selection is based on nutrient density, profitability, consumer demand, and the visual appeal both while growing in the market gardens and on the farmers market table for sale. Our packing room has stainless steel tables and sinks to keep the harvested produce clean. We spend a lot of time processing – washing, spinning, and packing and then to the produce cooler to ensure the freshness and health of our product. We drip irrigate many of our crops to reduce pathogen and weed pressure, seek to maintain an aesthetic in our market gardens to inspire visitors and to also aid in efficient maintenance and harvest of crops, and generally, train and encourage our staff to use care in how the produce is handled to ensure it arrives safe and fresh to our customers.
Sharing the Journey with Others
Lee’s Healthy Cooking Classes are engaging and fun. Participants learn about healthy recipes, what makes them nutritious, and helpful kitchen tips. They get a chance to tour the farm and when they return to the Education Barn get to sample the recipes discussed. They also have an opportunity to purchase farm-fresh produce to take home. Often, there are visiting chefs, authors, or medical professionals to lead the class. Sometimes classes focus on a regional cuisine – South Asian, Southwestern, Chinese stir-fry, and Mediterranean. Classes have also focused on fermentation, nutrition and methods for reducing joint pain, microbiome, and disease preventing recipes. Some of the recipes developed for these classes are on our website, www.peacefulriver.farm.
Similarly, our farm dinners are primarily plant-based and are prepared by a visiting chef. The dinners begin with a welcoming reception in our Education Barn featuring plant-based appetizers and a cool and unique beverage, prepared by Lee, followed by a farm tour, and dinner on our back deck overlooking the market gardens. The evening ends with the visiting chef discussing the menu and fielding questions. Folks leave with a new appreciation of farm-to-fork eating and an understanding of why fresh, sustainably grown produce is more nutritious and delicious than what is trucked in from 3,000 miles away.
We also discuss the impact that buying local produce will have on the health of our state’s economy (tens of thousands of new jobs) and especially our rural communities, many of them in economically distressed counties where manufacturing loss coupled with farm loss has hastened the exodus of their young people. We point to the burgeoning interest in sustainable farming among young people and encourage folks to consider how we can make our food system more sustainable by assisting young people to make farming a viable career option.
Standing for What We Stand On
They say that as you grow older, you need to learn new things. We’ve been on a steep learning curve these past few years and have stayed busy by…
- holding over a hundred healthy cooking classes
- welcoming over 3,800 people visiting the farm
- hosting dozens of farm dinners and celebrations
- providing our nutrient-dense produce to some of the top restaurants and niche grocers in the Triangle
- employing and guiding a number of young people wanting to farm or homestead or simply wanting to do something congruent with their values (Central Carolina Community College alumnus, Andrew Mayo, is our team leader and oversees several part-time staff)
- making a number of wonderful new friends
- welcoming our daughters, Meredith and Kathryn, and their spouses to the area from their homes in Greensboro
- babysitting in our “spare time” for our three grandchildren, Eleanor, Oscar, and Evangeline – the thrill of our lives
We are voting with our feet and sweat equity that we want a future for our children and grandchildren that is healthy and joyful, free of pesticides and pollution, and where the perils of ecological collapse are less ominous than today.
In our younger days we wanted to change the world. Now that we are wiser and more experienced, we want to change the world more than ever. Paraphrasing Wendell Berry – we’re standing for what we stand on.